A grossly obese woman in a “Mart cart” shouting, “No! Stop! Come here now!” Her children running helter-skelter, pausing only to rifle through a merchandise display. A wizened old man, his teeth falling out from the effects of methamphetamine. An elderly lady buying a gallon jug of wine. A young girl in jean shorts and skimpy blouse begging for cigarettes. I see all this as I stand at my cash register; and walking down the store aisles, I see shopping carts filled with beer while shabbily dressed babies scream at mothers old before their time. This is George Fox’s “darkness and death” right here, right now in my neighborhood Walmart store.
But I’m a Quaker, pulsating with the Inner Light! And yet, I too have my darkness. In my 20’s I drank heavily and did drugs. I stopped all that some 40 years ago; but even now I—never a smoker—chew nicotine gum to allay the boredom of cashiering. The habit gives me extra energy at work, but I know that even mild substance abuse is wrong. It does remind me that I share in the spiritual poverty I see all around me.
Luke tells us that, in the synagogue, Jesus claimed to have been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord “…to proclaim good news to the poor….” What was that good news? It was the revelation of a Kingdom of God in which love is the law, forgiveness the rule, and joy the fruit.
I sometimes (I’m ashamed to admit) feel superior to the poor people around me at Walmart. To counteract that feeling, I say “That of God, That of God, That of God” as I pass some poor specimen of humanity. A Friend has advised me to turn that practice on its head. He tells me to look at That of God in myself, to feel God’s love in myself. Then, he says, that Inner Love may overflow and become a feeling of sympathy for those less fortunate than myself. And—in time—we may all become aware that we live in God’s Kingdom.
~ Richard Russell
We are all familiar with optical illusions. In certain environments, straight lines appear to be bent; or, looking at a picture of a candle stick, we see an old woman who suddenly changes into a young woman. Optical illusions occur because of the structure of our brains. The human species sees these illusions because of the way our brains function.
Unfortunately, the brain is also subject to moral illusions, one of which is the self-serving bias. Because something is good or enjoyable for us, we assume that it is good for everybody. For example, a person has casual sex outside of marriage or commitment to one’s partner. That person then assumes that all sex is good under all circumstances. Or someone who’s obese sees fatness as acceptable because they like to eat cake and ice cream.
There is also the in-group out-group bias. Democrats perceive sexual abuse by Bill Clinton as normal—as “what men do” according to one Democratic woman I knew. Donald Trump’s liaisons, on the other hand, are evil and depraved since he is a Republican. (I am a Democrat, I should note.) Or Quakers see themselves as spiritually good while evangelical Christians are bad and deluded.
A third moral illusion is the just world fallacy. To soothe our own anxiety about life, we assume that the world is basically good and fair. So, when some evil is inflicted upon a person, we assume that the victim—at least a little—deserves what he or she got. An example might be the girl in tight jean shorts and revealing blouse who is raped. We think to ourselves, “Well, she really shouldn’t have been dressed so provocatively.” Or a drug addict dies from an accidental overdose; and we say to ourselves, “He shouldn’t have been taking drugs in the first place.”
To better understand both optical and moral illusions I recommend visiting this web page from the University of Texas (my alma mater). And we might ask ourselves what moral illusions Quakers tend to hold.
Robert Sapolsky is a famous neurology professor at Stanford University. I recently watched his lecture on “Biological Underpinnings of Religiosity” and felt the need (unfulfilled) to drink a few beers to get through it—not because it was a terrible lecture but because it could be taken as a cogent criticism of religion in general and Quakerism in particular.
Sapolsky argues that the origin of religion can be linked to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since the obsessive-compulsive facet is mainly confined to ritualistic religions like Catholicism, I won’t discuss that aspect. Schizophrenia, however, is relevant to Quakerism.
There are schizophrenic Quakers. I know one gentleman who attends Quaker meetings and claims that alien civilizations have instantaneous internet access throughout our galaxy. His speech is sometimes an incomprehensible “word salad.” I don’t know whether he’s ever spoken in meeting, but I can imagine his delivering a message that is pure delusion.
However, Sapolsky is not focused on full-blown schizophrenia. As an evolutionary biologist, he does wonder why a genetic basis for the disease has survived through the ages. If an illness is catastrophic—like schizophrenia—evolution and natural selection weed it out of the genome. In fact, schizophrenics do have fewer children than average. The schizophrenic genes should almost disappear as fewer and fewer people carry them. Yet, historically, and today, schizophrenia consistently afflicts about two per cent of the world’s population. What is the hidden evolutionary advantage that allows schizophrenia to survive?
The answer? Sometimes the schizophrenic gene complex is only partially expressed, and people often carry only some of the multiple genes (largely) causing the malady. Such people may be perfectly normal; but others display, in attenuated form, some schizophrenic traits. They may be abnormally shy and withdrawn. Their logic and reasoning may be faulty or at least “creative.” They may hear voices and see visions but not in the literal and commanding way of true hallucinations. Such people find a place in society. Their presence is advantageous.
In primitive societies these are the shamans, who cast spells, see the future, and heal with magic. In advanced societies they are the religious innovators like George Fox. Of course, Fox is known for his visions. In 1652 he climbed Pendle Hill and saw “a people in white raiment, coming to the Lord.” On another occasion the vision was an ocean of darkness and death overlaid by an ocean of light and love. Fox came to experience this Light within himself, identified the Light with Jesus Christ, and heard the Light “speak to his condition.” Before long, he was speaking in meetings and passing on to Friends the messages given him by his Inward Light. And modern Quakers continue the practice.
But are our messages from God, or are they the products of a disordered mind? Friends have evolved a process to help individuals tell the difference. We consciously try to discern whether a message is inspired by Spirit or simply an emanation of the personal ego. Naturally, there is the risk that we may discern wrongly. We may even speak out of neurosis or psychosis. Nevertheless, we have faith that God exists and still speaks to us today.
For those interested, Sapolsky’s lecture can be found on YouTube HERE.
~ Richard Russell
by John Herman *
Lord, I confess my need
For everywhere I see
Brokenness. Eye knows,
Mouth tastes, hand feels
Foreignness, as when
A ball strikes, and sight
Reels in sparks.
We are in want, Sir,
We are in jeopardy
We are hurled like iron hissing.
We are ice in a heated room.
We are broken shins
This is our state.
This our commonweal.
You are health, you
A rock in a slimy place.
Your face is hidden, your hand,
But here I stand,
I can do no other.
I need you.
We stand, at all times, naked before the Lord as the torrents and tumults of life assault us. Naked in our need and naked in the sense that our hearts are an open book to God. How often do we break down and break through and beseech God (the great I AM, Allah, The Great Spirit or Universal Intelligence ...) for help?
We've seen so much arrogance in our politics and daily life we've forgotten what it is to be humble. It is okay to ask for help. None of us is the Encyclopedia Britannica
The Psalm of John Herman is both a plea and a promise because among all the brokenness there is also the divine. Perhaps it is in the very brokenness, the complexity, and the deconstructing that we find what we need.
The carefully constructed façade of our little "s" self is just that -- a Potemkin Village waiting to be revealed as the fraud it is. What lies behind is the real big "S" Self, what Quakers would call "that of God in each of us", but to get there we have to be willing to be vulnerable & humble ... NAKED.
And why not? We already are.
* WHITE SUMMER by John J. Herman
Quakers, just by being Quakers, should be happy or at least fulfilled or at least on the road to fulfillment and happiness. I took the online Happiness Quiz and discovered that, although my score was far from perfect, I’m a qualified “happiness expert.”
Take the online quiz and find out how happy you are. Of course, you probably already know; and if your scoower than you’d like, remember not to take the quiz too seriously. Being too serious is detrimental to happiness!
~ Richard Russell
During my undergraduate years at the University of Texas, I discovered I was good at Latin. Before long, I was informally majoring in Classics and especially interested in Roman History. I was a shy, passive sort; and studying the aggressive Romans probably allowed me to compensate for my fears. I could take a vicarious satisfaction in Roman military prowess and the Roman tenacity that turned defeat into victory. I could identify with Julius Caesar even when he massacred and enslaved his enemies. Those barbaric Gauls got what they deserved!
Well, I’ve changed. Last night I watched a Netflix episode about Julius Caesar and found myself totally turned off by Caesar’s relentless ambition. It was typical of the Roman upper class to find the meaning of life in power and glory. These days I’m almost nauseated by that kind of ambition—although I detect a trace of it in myself.
I can’t help reflecting that, while Augustus was laying the foundations of the Roman Empire, a humble carpenter in the Roman province of Judaea had a son whom he named Yeshua. This boy grew into our Jesus and lived the lowest of low lives according to the Roman hierarchy of values. He travelled the dusty roads of Judaea, often in filthy rags, followed by half-starved peasants nursing the forlorn hope of throwing off the Roman yoke and seeing the establishment of a miraculous Kingdom of God on Earth. And this Yeshua managed to get himself crucified like a common criminal or miscreant slave.
Now, in my old age, I’ve thrown off my personal allegiance to the Caesars. In my own imperfect way, I follow the carpenter’s son and see his Kingdom of God as both a present and future reality. Of course, there are other ways to God, and I certainly don’t disparage different spiritual paths. The important thing is to be travelling, journeying, seeking your own spiritual Jerusalem.
~ Richard Russell
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